On Relisha Rudd and Why We Must Care for Black Girls Before They Go Missing

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by Stephanie Sneed

For the past few weeks every corner store, every liquor store and every gas station in Southeast has had photos of Relisha, a small Black girl with big sad eyes and small braids, her face adjacent to a man who as the details emerged would be known as a kidnapper, murderer and perhaps a pedophile. Ever so often a neighbor will relay their story of six degrees of separation, whether they went to high school with the mother or stayed at the shelter with them, needless to say this story hits close to home. But, similar to the local papers, new stations and online commenters, I’m getting ahead of myself. As tragic as Relisha’s story is, the real danger is what happens in the media far too often—the story is sensationalized and then individualized. The community’s rational outrage is quelled by having someone to blame, which is a grave mistake and overlooks the fault of larger more sinister forces that ignored Relisha until it was too late. Without institutional changes, there will be another Relisha Rudd.

Almost as soon as an Amber Alert was released, involved agencies, including DC General and DC Public Schools, began to deny blame, and through circular statements, effectively pointed the finger at Relisha’s mother. A young Black mother with three children under 10, who has a history of child protective services involvement, who lacks financial and domestic security, is an easy target to blame. I won’t sit here and deny that it is reasonable to believe that Relisha’s mother played a role in whatever may have happened, but it’s too simple to think all the blame lies with her mother, and it lets many others off the hook for creating the circumstances that allowed for this to happen. When we don’t acknowledge the failings of the systems and institutions, we accept the fact that something like this will happen again.

Nearly every story I’ve read about Relisha implicates the mother’s accountability through citing multiple child and family services visits with reports of both verbal and physical abuse, unsafe/unclean environments, and negligent behavior. These warning signs should indicate that further involvement/monitoring of children is necessary. For whatever reasons monitoring apparently was discontinued and Relisha’s home life continued to be tumultuous. The child and family services agency in DC is no different from those in other urban areas plagued with high rates of poverty. The staff is overworked with an unenviable caseload. Caseworkers are demonized as unfairly targeting families in high poverty without providing tangible solutions. Children are removed from family and placed with strangers or in group homes that often are equally as abusive. The criticisms are true, but that doesn’t discount the importance of family intervention and the necessity of social workers to put children’s safety and welfare first. Thus, it isn’t surprising that when a high profile case like Relisha’s emerges, there are more questions than answers about how Relisha’s family slipped through the cracks.

In more affluent communities schools are safety nets for students, a place to turn when their home lives are lacking. However, Relisha, like numerous other students in DC, attended a school whose student body demographic, location east of the Anacostia, and perpetually low test scores made them all but invisible to the DC Public School system. Inexperienced teachers are funneled in and have no more qualifications for teaching than they do for dealing with the socioeconomic factors that prevent many students from prioritizing education over survival. Teachers, who are mandated reporters, often don’t know what signs to look for aside from easily discernible bruises, but it is critical for teachers to be trained on how to identify abuse, including sexual abuse. When a student misses 30+ days, excused or not, this should be a red flag. School systems that don’t address poverty will continue to fail the students who rely on free breakfast and lunch, yet are provided with little else. Urban schools that are more concerned with draconian punishment and prison-to-pipeline zero tolerance policies are not likely to enact changes to help their most vulnerable students.

Homeless youth, especially girls, are at a much higher risk of abuse and Relisha is no exception. Homeless shelters, particularly DC General, whose history as a hospital and now as a shelter, are rife with violence and abuse toward women and children. When families enter DC General they are told of the dangers and warned to keep their children close; they must weigh the need for protection from the elements against the lack of safety shelters afford them. Maybe Relisha’s mother didn’t heed the warnings because she yearned for the right to trust someone, or maybe she was too bogged down in her fight for survival and humanity that her child’s welfare could not be her first concern. Whatever the case, the reality is that if it had not been Relisha, this predator would have destroyed the life of another Black girl. The problem is not the singular flaws of Relisha’s mother, but the institutions that see Black children, particularly Black girls, and refuses to support them or value their safety.

Being completely ignorant of Relisha’s mother’s upbringing, statistically speaking it is likely that as a Black girl she herself faced systematic abuses, perhaps even at the hands of people she trusted. Yet she was invisible until she became a mother and was deemed a “problem” by the system. This is the fate of Black girls who are abused, who become teens who are “fast,” and Black women who are often characterized in the media by a laundry list of oversexualized, dehumanizing traits. This is the erased story of Black girls in America who are affected by society’s hatred of their race, gender and class (real or assumed). In a city becoming more unaffordable, that disregards poor residents, particularly ones east of the Anacostia River; it is shameful that the city cares about Relisha only once she has disappeared.

Despite throwing support and resources toward finding or recovering Relisha they were apathetic to circumstances they exacerbated through unaffordable housing, an unlivable minimum wage, inadequate emergency shelters, broken schools and social service systems that all work together to enforce generational poverty. We must be attentive to the needs of Black girls, not just when they are missing, but when they are here in our classrooms, in our shelters and in our neighborhoods. Relisha’s story is our own and regardless of what we may find out about what has happened to her we need to fight to make sure that the systems in place provide safety for our Black girls who are the most vulnerable, those who are unloved and those who are systematically ignored. We need to place the responsibility of what happened to Relisha back on the agencies and institutions that are so quick to deny culpability. We need to hold our public institutions accountable because when we allow them to turn Relisha, Aiyana, Hadiya into singular occurrences it erases the pain and vulnerability in what it means to be a Black girl in this country.

Stephanie Sneed is a full-time mother. When she gets a chance, she's a part-time writer likely writing about happenings in Southeast, DC. You can find her occasionally writing and often reblogging at theblackamericanprincess.tumblr.com

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